“Let's take a trip down Whittier Boulevard,” shrieks the record player. Standing over the needle, storied Chicano record collector Gene Aguilera shakes his shoulders as East L.A. rockers Thee Midniters boogie their way through the 1965 hit named after the famous street there.
Aguilera adjusts the volume, and sound fills the Vault — his nickname for the converted garage of his Montebello home, which houses his collection of more than 10,000 LPs and 5,000 45s. The Vault has custom-built maple shelving, its own air-conditioning system and a top-notch sound system, though Aguilera often prefers to listen to his treasures on a scratchy, elementary-school turntable he picked up at a swap meet.
Like Aguilera himself, the Vault is obsessively organized: Rows and rows of alphabetized vinyl line the walls. The reservoir includes everything from '50s doo-wop and surf music to country and blues, but Aguilera's deepest passion is for the East L.A. Chicano music of the 1960s, which comprises about 20 percent of the collection.
It documents what Aguilera and others refer to as the “Golden Age” of East L.A. rock & roll. It was a time when you could find multiple Chicano artists from East L.A. on the national charts — everyone from Thee Midniters, to The Premiers with “Farmer John,” to Cannibal & the Headhunters with “Land of a Thousand Dances.” East L.A. band The Blendells found success with “La La La La La,” which was included on the 1965 hit compilation album Baby Don't Go from Sonny & Cher and friends.
Aguilera's collection helps recall the vivid sights, frantic yells and wild energy of East Los Angeles during a time when it was a hotbed of Chicano art and political culture, everything from the famous East L.A. school walkouts — also known as the “Chicano Blowouts” — to the painting of vibrant Mexican murals. Tracks like “Whittier Blvd.” capture that boiling vitality and racial turbulence.
Though at the time Aguilera played mostly an observer's role, he has helped to document this unique period of Los Angeles' musical history. His need to categorize and get the details right is central to his character: He records this reporter's visit to his home through iPhone photos and sends out countless emails fact-checking minutiae.
He also is obsessed with the daunting, and as yet unfinished, task of finding vanished R&B singer Little Julian Herrera, whose 1956 hit “Lonely Lonely Nights” came right on the heels of Elvis Presley, and whose disappearance from East L.A. at the age of 25 has been chronicled by Alex Schmidt on KCRW. To Aguilera and many others, Herrera was like East L.A. music in its heyday — brilliant but largely forgotten.
Aguilera looks young for his 60 years and still wears band T-shirts. He certainly stays busy: In addition to his work as a music historian and managing Little Willie G., singer for Thee Midniters, he's writing a book about Mexican-American boxing in Los Angeles for Arcadia Publishing, and one about the history of the East L.A. music scene, which doesn't yet have a publisher and probably will take him years to finish. Oh, and then there's his day job, as vice president of a bank in Monterey Park.
Largely raised by his grandmother, Aguilera was 12 when he first heard “Whittier Blvd.” in 1965, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Boyle Heights with six other relatives. The appeal? That Thee Midniters were from the “same dirt” that he was, he says. Actually, they were from the same neighborhood, and shared his Chicano heritage. And they were huge in L.A., competing on the local charts with acts like The Beatles and Sonny & Cher. He immediately went out and bought the single.
“I heard it and I said to myself: 'This is my Beatles!' ” he says. “It was the first time I really realized that someone like me could make music like this, that we had something to say.”
After he was jumped several times, Aguilera moved in with his father and went to Lakewood High School. His good grades there earned him a scholarship to USC; after graduating in 1976, Aguilera went into the finance world, at which point he was finally able to afford all the records he wanted.
He eventually arrived in Montebello, a predominately Latino, upper-middle-class city bordering East L.A., and now lives with his wife and two school-age daughters on a quiet street that seems like the opposite of the raucous “Whittier Blvd.” of the 1960s. His home is modest and traditional, filled with old jukeboxes and pictures of his kids.
In 1991 Aguilera met Little Willie G. at a solo gig. They immediately bonded over their love of East L.A. music. Aguilera soon persuaded the singer, who became a born-again Christian in 1980 and was mainly doing gospel gigs at that point, to rekindle his career with Thee Midniters.
Which is how, recently, Aguilera finds himself sitting backstage with Little Willie G. before a show at Buffalo Bill's Casino in Primm, Nev. He's Thee Midniters' original singer but mainly plays larger gigs like this one for them nowadays. The act is headlining the Art Laboe Presents: Latin Oldies Legends concert, and the 6,000-seat theater is packed.
Aguilera believes the fact that East L.A. music still has this kind of draw is indicative of its importance in the musical canon, a distinction it hasn't always been given.
Indeed, why most East L.A. artists failed to launch fully into the mainstream is a complicated question.
“It was a different world back then in '65, and there were not a lot of 'brown' or Chicano acts from East L.A. out on the [Sunset] Strip,” Aguilera says. “Maybe the club owners didn't think they would draw outside of the barrio. Maybe they didn't want a club full of Mexican kids in there drinking and dancing around.
“What's an East L.A. band manager to do in those days? Pick up the phone and book a group into the Whisky A Go Go? It just didn't happen.”
Aguilera's collection is sobering, a physical reminder of the important bands that weren't given a fair shot. He says a major record label often would take a hit song off of a Chicano band's record and include it on a compilation but then fail to give the band a real record deal.
Small East L.A. imprints like Rampart were forced to license out a single track and watch their artists stagnate. Aguilera insists that labels like Warner Bros., Date and Reprise were focused on lifting proven hits from the barrio, not promoting the scene's growth.
Even most rock & roll documentaries have nary a word to say about the East L.A. music scene of the '60s, including the five-volume history Rock & Roll put out by the BBC in 1995. “It feels like a forgotten village,” Aguilera says, slipping The Blendells' single “La La La La La” back into its sleeve.
For an obsessive record collector like Aguilera, this lack of canonical acknowledgement is infuriating. For that reason his desire to index and arrange makes perfect sense. His Vault is an exercise in not forgetting. There's been enough of that already.